Creating Patient-Centered Customer Service

December 4, 2015

Good customer service means a lot in healthcare and one hospital recently showed the power and importance of the “human moment” in healthcare.

Customer service is something that is easy to recognize but can be hard to implement, especially a healthcare environment. There are so many things that conspire against good customer service in a hospital that they are almost too numerous to mention.

A 2013 Forbes article lists a number of ways to improve customer service in healthcare and in hospitals. As fate would have it, I am sitting at Stanford University Hospital while my brother has a neurosurgical procedure to remove a tumor from his midbrain. As a surgical PA, I'm used to being on the other side of the doors. This is a different experience for me, and helps improve my understanding of the patient experience.

Now I realize that I am somewhat biased as to the facility - Stanford is where I attended PA school in the early ’80s. However, I couldn’t help but be amazed at the customer service in this facility from my first encounter walking through the front doors. Now, I have not been to this hospital in years and the place is massive, but the minute that I stopped to look for directions on a hospital map, a hospital employee came up to me and asked immediately if he could help me. Not only did he help me, he walked me down the back stairs to where I needed to be. Excellent first impression.

The second encounter was in the preoperative area with my brother. The circulating nurse, the pre-op nurse, the anesthesiologist and the neurosurgeon, all came into the room, shook everybody's hand and introduced themselves individually to each person. This is a wonderful practice. It reminded me that when my mother had had cancer surgery here a number of years ago, I had the same experience in every aspect of the hospital encounter at that time. It wasn't just a fluke.

Every hospital employee needs to be empowered to deal with complaints and problem solve. This is easier said than done. It starts with hiring the right people and giving them the right training. An empowered employee is a happy employee. They need to believe in the sense of community of the hospital or facility in which they work. Create this environment, and it is a very short step to good customer service.

Hospitals are especially stressful places for the friends and family of the patients. It doesn't take much to ease some of the anxiety, uncertainty, and helplessness that people experience when seeking care in the healthcare environment. One of the things that struck me in the Forbes article is the recommendation that it takes “systems as well as smiles” to produce customer service.

I agree. It is obvious that an institution like Stanford University Hospital takes patient satisfaction very seriously and has acculturated their staff and providers to think about good customer service in all patient and family encounters. But I have to tell you, the smiles themselves are incredibly important. A hospital can be a difficult environment, but when it is filled with a smiling, competent, confident, and helpful staff, it becomes a welcoming environment despite the physical setting. I was truly inspired by my experience at Stanford University Medical Center. It validates what I've always believed about customer service. There is a long-time retired staffer at the American Academy of PAs who always reminded us about the importance of the "human moment” - meaning direct, honest, and sincere connections with our fellow colleagues, peers and patients can be the most important part of the social discourse. In the hospital environment, as well as in any healthcare environment, these human connections - no matter how small - are at least as important as all of the technology, science, and expertise that we bring to our jobs.